My toddler likes to play an alphabet game on our tablet; the app pops up a word, has a bunch of cartoon creatures run past it knocking the letters off the word, and requires the kid playing the game to place the letters back into their appropriate spot. When selected, each letter says its phonetic sound. I can’t get the R sound out of my head. Halfway between a growl and a pirate greeting, it’s quite the earworm. So maybe as adults we’ve moved beyond phonics, but the power of the alphabet remains as well as our nostalgia for Sesame Street. To continue our recent alphabet theme, here are some photos of the month, brought to you by the letter R.
We don’t have any photos of radium, or some of the more implausible things radium was slipped into (paint, water, medicine!), but we do have plenty of photos of the discoverer of radium, Marie Curie. In this photo, Marie Curie is seen visiting a radium refining plant of the Standard Chemical Company in Pittsburg, PA. Why, you might ask, would the famous Nobel Laureate travel across an ocean to visit Pittsburgh? (No shade to Pittsburgh, great town, not my favorite hockey team.) Radium, famously difficult and expensive to refine, was hard to come by, even for its discoverer. Such was Curie’s desperation when she spoke to journalist Marie Meloney, that she inspired Meloney to start a campaign to raise money for Curie’s radium from the women of America. Brigades of American housewives and schoolgirls raised today’s equivalent of 2 million dollars to purchase and refine a gram of radium for Marie Curie to use in her research. Marie Curie visited America to receive it, coming all the way to the very plant that refined it for her.
You can read more about that fascinating story here.
Radiation protection, not always a priority of early radiation scientists, is essential for shielding people from the harmful effects of radiation. Though we don’t expect radium to show up in our health elixirs anymore, radiation has become part of our daily lives, whether for health, energy, or science. Hattie Carwell spent her career as a health physicist working in radiation protection at the U.S. Department of Energy and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). She also wrote Blacks in Science: Astrophysicist to Zoologist in 1977.
Karl G. Jansky, an engineer for Bell Laboratories, used this rotating antenna in 1932 to find radio waves coming from outside our solar system. His discovery ultimately gave birth to the science of radio astronomy. Jocelyn Bell Burnell later followed up on Jansky’s discovery with the first ever detection of radio pulsars in 1967. Radio astronomy also helps astronomers learn about stellar nurseries like the Orion Nebula and understand the cause of gravitational waves. I guess nobody told astronomers that video killed the radio star?
Fermilab’s Main Ring, to be exact. Like the One Ring for particle physicists? The description of this photo of the Main Ring tunnel has a basic (for physicists anyway) explanation: “The proton beam travels in a vacuum tube 2 inches by 5 inches located in the center of 1,014 magnets which bend and focus the beam as it travels around the four-mile ring 50,000 times per second. On each revolution, the beam is given a 2.8 million electron volt 'kick' by the radio frequency system, elevating energy to 200 billion electron volts (BeV) or higher. The machine operates regularly at 400 BeV, and has been accelerated to 500 BeV. Cooling water passes through the pipes above, and at the end of the magnets.”
Harlow Shapley at his famous rotating desk at Harvard College Observatory circa 1940.
I don’t know about how other people work, but my desk, whether at home or in my office, is always covered in papers, notebooks, and as many computer screens as I can fit. A rotating desk would be a game changer. Better yet, make it an adjustable standing and rotating desk! It would be hard to fit in my office, but that’s a problem for tomorrow.
If you’re okay learning more about Harlow Shapley, but not his desk, check out his oral histories here:
This is a photo of the 40-inch Yerkes Observatory refracting telescope before mid-1970 changes. Though Yerkes Observatory housed the largest refracting telescope ever used for astronomy, the first refracting telescope was invented in 1608 by the Dutch lens-maker, Hans Lippershey. This early telescope only magnified objects three or four times and consisted merely of a convex and concave lens in a tube. But as we now know, some other people continued to develop the telescope. Their names have been lost to history...just kidding! They’re some of the most famous scientists ever to have existed: Galileo and Kepler. The refracting telescope dominated astronomy for several hundred years. However, in 1668, another nobody, named Newton, devised a reflecting telescope. Though only a curiosity at first, it developed with the work of famous astronomers like John Hadley and William Herschel, and has now overtaken the refracting telescope in modern astrophysics. I can’t really do the full story justice, but I highly recommend you take a journey through this online exhibit on the history of telescopes.
August 26, 1937, a rocket designed by Robert H. Goddard, in flight near Roswell, New Mexico. Goddard is considered the “Father” of modern rocketry and was the first person to successfully launch a rocket using liquid fuel in 1926. He even theorized that rockets could be powerful enough to take us to the moon one day. Though the media coverage of those theories got a little out of hand and made Goddard suspicious of the press forever.
Here you can see a short tongue-in-cheek blurb about a moon-shot being postponed from the Washington Times July 15, 1920:
Venkatraman Ramakrishnan won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 2009 and I cannot possibly summarize his life journey better than his own words upon receiving the Nobel Prize:
Though I find many things admirable and interesting about Ramakrishnan’s eclectic journey through science, this line really caught my eye:
It reinforced in me the feeling that ignorance is not something to be ashamed of, and that no question is too stupid to ask if you want to know the answer.